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Matt Day - The Sugar Factory
by Dov Kornits

No matter how much disdain we hold towards actors sleepwalking through soaps, there's no denying that most of our movie stars got their first break (and regular paycheck) in TV dreamland. In the case of Matt Day, it was a recurring role on the long running Australian soap A Country Practice. Unlike Fatso the Wombat, Matt got out before it was too late and pursued his dream of making it in the movies. After starring in two of the best Australian films 1997 had to offer - Doing Time for Patsy Cline and Kiss or Kill - Matt's profile skyrocketed and he is now the first name on every casting director's lips when it comes to playing young male leads.

It was also in 1997 that Matt starred in a small movie called The Sugar Factory. Why small? Made for just over a million dollars, the film was bound to join the innumerable Australian features that never see a local release, until it won an award at the Hollywood Film Festival. Overseas acceptance is paramount to Australian success in a lot of people's eyes, so a distributor finally came to their senses and picked up this affecting story of a young man's journey from borderline insanity to thorough revelation.

Despite The Sugar Factory's limited box-office potential, Matt is very proud of his work on this personal film from first time director Robert Carter.

"The script was based on Robert's book. So it wasn't like I had to do a lot of research because that was already done and the character was fleshed out. Robert's a psychologist, so it was basically all there. And I had the novel as a resource and basically went with that. You can tell when a script comes from a novel because it's so well fleshed out and so much of the work needed of the actor has already been done."

So how did an author handle the directing job?
"Robert had made one short film before this. Basically he's written a few books and a few short stories. He had sold the rights to The Sugar Factory and it had been bouncing from one producer to the next for about ten years. Finally the rights came up again and he bought it back himself. In between he'd written a couple of screenplays, got a bit of experience in film and decided he wanted to direct it himself. So bought the rights back and started from scratch in adapting it into a screenplay. He went out and talked to screenwriters and read scripts to find out about the format.

"Robert also had a great crew. The producer made sure that the best crew was working with him. So there's a great DOP in Andrew Lesnie and a great script supervisor. They're two very important bookends for a director, I think. And they were both very experienced. There was also Tony Buckley as executive producer and he's one of this country's most experienced producers. Robert had the infrastructure there and all he had to concentrate on was the day to day directing."

With this being Robert's first film as a director, and with the old adage that you write/direct what you know, does that mean your character Harris Berne is Robert as a younger man?
"That was one of the first things I asked him; whether or not this is based on a true story? No, it was totally made up, apart from the 'sugar factory' idea, which was something he did as a kid - he would sit under the house making sugar out of stone.
I've since read a lot of Robert's work, and a lot of it hinges on this psychological stuff - a certain event that turns somebody's world around. In the case of The Sugar Factory it's the baby in the fridge. He does seem to like young characters that have a bit of innocence to them. Someone that is an ordinary kid living in the suburbs with a stable family, but goes through a traumatic experience and Robert gets the drama out of that."
Is Harris mad?

"I think the character is an eccentric. By no means mad. He was scarred. I think Robert borrowed from the idea of repressed memory, which is fashionable in psychology circles. Something that happens to you as a child comes back and haunts you when you're an adult. Whether or not that's true, it's a good thing to use in drama. That was what it was in Harris' case. He went through a traumatic experience as a child and then it takes another traumatic experience to trigger flashbacks to his childhood. So he returns to that fretting childhood state."

Matt is originally from Melbourne...that would explain his fascination with Aussie Rules. More recently the actor has been in transit, going from a film set to a film festival to a holiday to a film set.... Currently though, with a role in a play, Matt has made a conscious decision to settle down in Sydney's eastern inner city.

"Apparently Fred has been the STC's biggest debut ever. Sold out and extended until February 27," he says proudly of the play that also features his Dating The Enemy co-star Claudia Karvan.
"I did a lot of theatre when I was a teenager, but this is the first play I've done for five years. I've worked with the New England Theatre, Ensemble Theatre, STC. They approached me about the play. I don't know if I'll do any more soon. I don't make any huge plans about where I'm going to go. It was just timing. I did a lot of travelling last year, then came back and shot a film in Melbourne for eight weeks. I really wanted to settle down, so settled in Sydney because I hadn't had a base for a while. The play came up; I liked it when I read it, met the director, and thought this would be a good way to spend summer. You get out there, you enjoy yourself, you entertain people, and then you go home."

So what's this movie you shot in Melbourne?
"Muggers. It's got Jason Barry in it. He played the Irish guy who gets shot at the end of Titanic."

Doesn't the guy who made Lex and Rory direct it? Have you seen that?
"I was going to watch it but Dean [Murphy, the director] wouldn't let me because he said it was a load of shit. So I took his word for it."

So why do Muggers?
"It's a commercial film and that's why I did it. It's enjoyable. That was the attraction. I read the script and laughed and thought this could be quite funny. Met Dean and he was quite inspirational. Plus he was my age. He's one of the few directors who I sat down with and he didn't bore me to tears within the first ten minutes. He wasn't dropping cliches, but actually had storyboards designed, talked about the look, certain camera moves and other films he'd seen. He talked about the soundtrack and about making a film that would entertain - be fun to shoot and make. And it was. It was a laugh. Everyone had a great time because we created this little Muggers world in Melbourne. It's not a Melbourne film because it's all in the backalleys and could be anywhere. The reality is quite heightened. Even quirky to use an awful word. It was a lot of things that people in the establishment hate, which is one of the reasons I did it."

Muggers is commercial, but on the other side of the coin is The Sugar Factory, which was the last film wholly financed by the FFC (Film Finance Corporation). "Yeah, now I think you have to get at least 60% financing before they give you another 40%."

There's been a lot of talk about the uncommercial Australian films released last year...So are you pro or con a subsidised industry?
"Depending on how you see it, the good thing about a subsidised industry is that people can make films that normally wouldn't be made because they're not commercially viable. We can explore more. I think with The Sugar Factory they thought there was some commercial element with a young audience. Whether or not that works in the final product, I don't know. I mean there's no guarantee if you go out and make a commercial film that it's going to end up being successful. But in Australia, if you make a film for a million bucks and it makes half a million bucks domestically, I think that's commercial. There's sales overseas, TV, etc.

"One of the great things about being subsidised is that films like Head On can be made. There would be other people, and I'm not saying that I'm one of them, who would argue that why make films if no one is going to see them? Isn't it an indulgence to let one person make their vision that the masses don't want to see? There are two sides there. I think a degree of government funding is necessary. You need that like the French have in order to protect the industry. There wouldn't be an industry otherwise."

Do you think there's a major funding cutback on the cards?
"I don't think it's politically wise to do that. I don't know if I'd be marching but there's be plenty of others who would be. I found it quite interesting that a lot of recent commentators talked about how great it was that we weren't making quirky films and instead making intense movies. They were talking about three films - Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla. Very different films in their own way - each a commercial success and critical pleaser, and each exploring different themes. Muriel's Wedding is actually a very dark film in a lot of ways and a very biting social satire of Australian society. I think it's unfortunate that people should generalise and lump them together. Three films that made a lot of money, entertained a lot of people and launched a lot of people's careers."
Including yours...

"Yeah. I've been working for fifteen years as an actor and have heard of every argument. Like there were so many people that told me I was insane for leaving a long running television series when I was a teenager because it was good money. I should have bought a house and blah, blah, blah. That's very true, but I had to leave in terms of career. But you've got to balance it. And I've seen people who have done a film and it's caught people's attention on the international market. Other people have said to them to stay here and support the Australian film industry because that's the comrade thing to do. But the Australian film industry doesn't support them. So you have to weigh things up.

"In terms of Muggers, I didn't look at it and say this is a big commercial gig. Who knows what it's going to do? I had been offered a lot of stuff in Australia, and most of it was so depressing and hard. And not even in an interesting way that maybe, 'wow, this is a story that has to be told'. Like the recent stuff which has been classed as depressing, ordinary, arthouse kind of stuff, but really important stories with an impact. But the scripts I was reading were stories that the writers had no idea about. I don't see a problem with making a film that'll make audiences piss themselves."

But I guess it's important to balance the two...
"The reality is that the people who are in control of the money notice commercial films that make money and that people see. That counts to them - the marquee name. I'm not ashamed to say that I understand that. I'm not naive enough to ignore that. Look at examples of British actors like Gary Oldman and Tim Roth who cut their teeth making such intense films with directors such as Mike Leigh and Alex Cox and everyone bemoans the fact that they go to Hollywood and make blockbusters. Everyone bags the shit out of them. And then when they come back to their country, because of their name alone - because of the shit that they have done which entertained a lot of people and didn't cause any fucking famines or conflicts - they can raise money on their name alone and go off to make personal stories like Nil By Mouth or Tim Roth's film which is soon to come out. They're able to do that. It's got to be a two way streak." ---Dov Kornits

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=20
originally posted: 05/08/99 09:04:28
last updated: 05/19/99 02:01:52
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